How a highway fight helped keep NC on the map

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Our History

 Steve Cottrell


There’s been a lot of talk recently regarding State Route 174. Although the 13-mile stretch connecting Grass Valley with Colfax has been considered for widening and realignment for several years, some people who live along the route oppose major alterations.


But major alterations might not be an issue today if Chicago Park boosters had prevailed 92 years ago.


When the Nevada County portion of the Tahoe-Ukiah Highway was being mapped out in the early 1920s, the new cross-state route was designed to run through Nevada City and connect with what is now Interstate 80 at a point near Emigrant Gap. But a less costly route –– from Grass Valley to Colfax via Chicago Park –– was favored by frugal Governor Friend Richardson.


The proposed Nevada City-Emigrant Gap road would intersect with the transcontinental highway that became U.S. 40 in 1926, but, of course, be much costlier than a highway to Colfax.


On November 24, 1925, at the urging of Gov. Richardson, a determined William Mixon, Secretary of the State Highway Commission, appeared before the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to explain why a road to Colfax was preferred over the longer route eastward from Nevada City.


Mixon claimed the shorter route would merely be a “temporary” state highway until the route from Nevada City to Emigrant Gap could be built. But supervisors knew if a state-funded route to Colfax via Chicago Park was constructed, the one-lane trail leading east from Nevada City would remain a rocky, rutted county road –– perhaps for decades. And the economic impact on Nevada City by routing a new highway from Grass Valley to Colfax via Chicago Park would be devastating.


Mixon made his pitch and supervisors quickly voted 5-0 to oppose the idea.

Two weeks after Mixon came here advocating the Grass Valley-Colfax route, an emergency meeting of the State Highway Commission was held at Marysville, attended by representatives from all counties through which the Tahoe-Ukiah Highway would run. The six counties unanimously supported the Nevada City-Emigrant Gap route, but Chicago Park farmers and orchard owners fought back. They began lobbying Mixon and other Sacramento officials, as did Nevada City community leaders.


On February 27, 1926, the state commission relented and agreed to stick to their original plan for a two-lane highway from Nevada City to a point near Emigrant Gap. If the state commission had, instead, decided in Chicago Park’s favor, Highway 174 would have become the major highway between Grass Valley and U.S. 40, (now I-80) –– wider and straighter than it is today.


Although extending the route east beyond Nevada City was approved, Gov. Richardson had reduced all highway funding in the state budget, slowing transformation of a one-lane county road into a two-lane state highway linking Nevada City with the 3,390-mile transcontinental highway.

Fortunately, Richardson’s successors –– Clement Young (1927-31) and James Rolph (1931-34) –– were Northern Californians who supported funding for the new cross-state project.


Finally, on November 18, 1934 –– nearly nine years after the Colfax route had been scrubbed –– the last Tahoe-Ukiah Highway segment was dedicated during a howling snow storm three miles east of Emigrant Gap. A reported 75 automobiles made it to the ceremony –– more than 50 from Nevada City and Grass Valley. But as the celebration progressed and snow continued to fall, the return trip became problematic.


After then-Governor Frank Merriam said a few words and cut the ceremonial ribbon, he and his party, along with a few select cars belonging to local VIPs and press, were towed by a state snowplow up the steep north-side grade from Bear Valley to
a point where they could manage their way to Nevada City. Dozens of other autos and their freezing passengers, however, were snowbound until snowplows and tow trucks arrived several hours later.


But the last link of the 230-mile Tahoe-Ukiah Highway was open, and it didn’t pass through Chicago Park.


Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.


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A reported 75 automobiles made it to a point three miles east of Emigrant Gap for dedication of the Tahoe-Ukiah Highway, but dozens became snowbound until plows and tow trucks were able to come to their rescue.